Brexit effects may reflect in business surveys

A worker shelters from the rain as he passes the London Stock Exchange in London

By Catherine Evans

LONDON (Reuters) – In the week after Britain formally notified the European Union of its intention to quit the bloc, business surveys will give more idea of what — if any — impact Brexit is having on the British economy and how its EU peers compare.

Last month’s purchasing managers’ index (PMI) reports suggested unexpectedly strong growth in Britain’s economy since June’s Brexit vote may be starting to flag as inflation picks up, partly as a result of the pound’s post-referendum plunge.

Similar surveys have meanwhile suggested activity in the euro zone is picking up pace, with flash PMIs for the bloc as a whole, and its two biggest economies, Germany and France, hitting six-year highs in March.

Index provider IHS Markit will release PMI surveys for British manufacturing, construction and services on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, with official data for manufacturing and construction output for February due to follow on Friday.

Economists polled by Reuters expect the PMI for the dominant services sector to tick up to 53.5 in March from February’s five-month low of 53.3. That reading suggested faltering consumer spending was starting to bite and pointed to first quarter economic growth of around 0.4 percent — compared with 0.7 percent in late 2016.

“UK PMIs for March, especially once combined with the February industrial production, construction and trade data should leave us with a very good feel for 1Q (first quarter) GDP by the end of the week,” Morgan Stanley economists wrote.

“Overall, we expect the data to point to some slowing in 1Q.”

Official data on Friday showed the services industry, which accounts for about two-thirds of Britain’s economy, contracted in January for the first time since March last year.

Other recent data has also suggested consumers are becoming more cautious.

British households’ declining spending power — real disposable income suffered the steepest quarterly drop in three years in October-December — led them to run down their savings to a record low in late 2016.

Sterling’s fall since the Brexit vote has kept manufacturing activity near 2-1/2 years highs since the turn of the year, but recent surveys have suggested higher input prices are hitting new orders in the construction sector. The pound has lost nearly a fifth of its value against the dollar.

Manufacturing accounts for around 10 percent of the British economy, with construction making up another 6 percent.

Britain’s economy last year defied forecasts that it would slow sharply after the referendum decision to leave the EU, instead expanding faster than most of its developed world peers.

PMIs for France and Germany are forecast to hold steady after last month’s sparkling performance, although economists at Commerzbank saw limited potential for further gains.

“The PMIs … are now at a level seldom surpassed since monetary union was established,” they said in a note.

“They only rose considerably higher in 2006 and in 1999/2000, during the New Economy boom. However, at that time the euro zone economy also expanded by more than 3 percent, which seems highly unlikely to happen now.”

How a quickening economy will play into France’s presidential election, the first round of which is on April 23 is unclear. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen champions economic nationalism to counter the forces of globalization, while frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, a pro-EU centrist, promises gradual tax cuts and budget discipline. Conservative Francois Fillon wants to reduce the role of the state in the French economy.

Friday’s non-farm payrolls report is the coming week’s standout U.S. data release, with a Reuters poll predicting the U.S. economy will have added 180,000 jobs in March.

Thursday will see the release of minutes of the ECB’s March policy meeting and speeches by both ECB President Mario Draghi and Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, who called again on Monday for a “less expansive” monetary policy.

When overall inflation hit the ECB’s 2 percent target last month, conservative countries like Germany piled pressure on Draghi, calling for an end to the bank’s 2.3 trillion euro asset buying scheme.

But a tumble in March to 1.5 percent from February’s four-year high may have vindicated Draghi’s cautious stance, which saw the ECB pledge on March 9 to keep the stimulus policy in place but signal a diminishing urgency for more action.

(Editing by Richard Lough)